Ireland squad for Argentina tour named: Madigan misses out

Joe Schmidt has named the Ireland squad for the two-test tour of Argentina next month.

Leinster out-half Ian Madigan misses out on the trip to the Southern Hemisphere, and instead will travel with the Emerging Ireland squad to Romania.

The move may surprise some supporters as Jonny Sexton could probably do with a rest after a long season. His first campaign as  Racing Metro player was preceded by the victorious Lions tour, and he’s also been on Ireland duty last November and during the Six Nations.

Paddy Jackson has been named as the second out-half on the Argentina tour. Schmidt named four uncapped players for the trip. They are Ulster forward pair Rob Herring and Robbie Diack, Munster front row Dave Cronin and Connacht scrum-half Kieran Marmion. Herring and Diack qualify for Ireland through residency.

Some experienced campaigners have been given the chance to rest and recuperate after a gruelling campaign. Tommy Bowe, Sean Cronin, Gordon Darcy, Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy won’t be on the plane.

Dave Kearney’s injury he picked up against Ulster at the weekend sees him miss out, with Munster’s Simon Zebo given the opportunity to show his worth to Joe Schmidt after playing no part in the Six Nations victory this spring.

Captain Paul O’Connell travels, but this is the first Ireland squad of the post Brian O’Driscoll era, with the talisman having retired from international rugby following the Six Nations.

In his absence, the outside centre spot is up for grabs. With Keith Earls, Darren Cave and Robbie Henshaw all on the plane and mooted as possible replacements at 13, it will be interesting to see who Schmidt auditions in Argentina.

The tests take place on the 7th of June in Resistencia and the 15th in Tucuman.

Ireland Squad:

Forwards:

Rory Best (Ulster), James Cronin (Munster), Robbie Diack (Ulster), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Chris Henry (Ulster), Jamie Heaslip (Leinster), Rob Herring (Ulster), David Kilcoyne (Munster), Jack McGrath (Leinster), Martin Moore (Leinster), Jordi Murphy (Leinster), Paul O’Connell (Munster, captain), Mike Ross (Leinster), Rhys Ruddock (Leinster), Devin Toner (Leinster), Damien Varley (Munster).

Backs:

Darren Cave (Ulster), Keith Earls (Munster), Robbie Henshaw (Connacht), Paddy Jackson (Ulster), Felix Jones (Munster), Rob Kearney (Leinster), Kieran Marmion (Connacht), Luke Marshall (Ulster), Fergus McFadden (Leinster), Conor Murray (Munster), Eoin Reddan (Leinster), Jonathon Sexton (Racing Metro), Andrew Trimble (Ulster), Simon Zebo (Munster).

Heineken Cup Reaction: Irish hopes rest on Munster

And then there was one. The weekend started with such optimism, with three Irish provinces in the mix for a Heineken Cup semi-final spot. For one reason or another, two fell by the wayside and now it’s left to Munster to carry the hopes of a nation.

Thomond Park was rocking yesterday and Toulouse just couldn’t cope with the intensity that Rob Penney’s men brought to the game. Munster were magnificent from the beginning and the away side looked beaten after only four minutes when Keith Earls dotted down in the corner. However they hung on and Keatley and McAllister traded penalties leaving Munster 4 points up at the break.

Five Munster tries in a superb second half did for Toulouse, with the home forwards dominating Picamole and company at the breakdown and in the set-piece. After struggling for scores against Leinster last week, Penney will be delighted that 6 different players crossed the whitewash for five-pointers yesterday.

Munster fans must have been worried when captain Peter O’Mahony was benched with a shoulder complaint early on but his replacement CJ Stander put in a man-of-the-match performance, with a try to top off an excellent effort at the break-down. Munster will need all their forward options for the semi-final in three week’s time.

So then it was Ulster’s turn yesterday evening to compete for a place in the semi-finals. Mark Anscombe’s charges welcomed to Ravenhill a Saracens side who in Chris Ashton boasted the top try scorer in the competition this year with seven in the pool stages.  Clermont Auvergne awaited the winners following their victory over Leicester in the afternoon.   Ulster began as favourites, and considering how close they ran Saracens after losing Jared Payne to a red card in the fourth minute, Rory Best to injury not long after, and Ruen Pienaar with half an hour to go, it was probably a title they deserved.

The northern province stayed within touching distance right until the end, and when Jerome Garces looks back on the Payne red card he may review his decision not to administer a more lenient punishment. The full-back did take his his opposite number Alex Goode out in the air, but although it was dangerous it looked entirely accidental as both men went for the ball. Ulster’s supporters were vocal from before kick-off but following that decision they acted as a 15th man and Saracens were lucky to emerge with a 17-15 victory.

Leinster travelled to Toulon today knowing that a win would set up a mouth-watering semi-final with Munster at the Aviva in three week’s time. It was always going to be a big ask however, facing the 2013 champions in their home fortress. The power of the Toulon pack coupled with the strength of Mathieu Bastareaud and running threat across the back line was much lauded before the kick-off. Both sides made mistakes early on, but even the withdrawal of Jonny Wilkinson early on didn’t hamper Toulon’s game plan unduly. They may have kicked for territory more if he had stayed on the field but their forwards were more than capable of battering Leinster into submission.

The sides went in level at half time with the score at six all. The first five minutes of the second half left Leinster with a mountain to climb however after a Giteau penalty was followed by a converted Chiocci try. Toulon went on to score a further two tries and two penalties while Leinster could only manage one penalty and a Jordi Murphy try late on. Even with Toulon reduced to fourteen men for the final ten minutes, Leinster could not camp themselves in enemy territory for long enough to launch any meaningful attacks. It was no fairytale European ending for Brian O’Driscoll but he couldn’t be faulted for his effort today. Mistakes were made by both sides but a few missed tackles and some poor handling contributed to Leinster’s downfall.

So Munster must travel to Marseille to take on Toulon three weeks from today. It will be interesting to see what sort of a proposition the French side are outside of the Stade Felix Mayol. One thing is for sure however, Munster’s pack must bring their A-game if they are to compete with the gargantuan Toulon forwards. O’Connell and O’Mahony against Armitage and Roussow. It promises to be some encounter.

Feature picture: inpho.ie

Ireland clinch Six Nations in Paris

2014 Six Nations Champions 

There would have been no shame in defeat, and yet no solace either. All week the question was which France would turn up; the clueless team of individuals or a ruthless try-scoring operation. The truth was somewhere in between. Individual brilliance with just enough cohesion to make Ireland sweat to the last.
Ireland gave themselves headaches at times, particularly in the first half. The kicking out of hand, which Ronan O’Gara stressed beforehand would be so important, was marginally off. In a game to decide the outcome of the Six Nations, small margins can be crucial.
Two tries and two awful kicks at goal. If it wasn’t for the elbow to the head from the 18 stone Mathieu Bastereaud, Jonathon Sexton would remember this game for a long time. Thankfully he was able to join in the post-match celebrations even after being stretchered off in the 65th minute. Irish fans chewed nails as his replacement Ian Madigan took to the field. Preferred on the bench to Paddy Jackson today, this was his first appearance in the 2014 Six Nations. 
With Jordi Murphy the only sub not to take to the field of play, Ireland were left with a good deal of inexperienced players to close out the game. While the scrum lost some of its ballast after the withdrawal of Ross and Healy, in open play Ireland were to a man committed and disciplined until the end. It’s expected of the old hands. It’s a joy to see it from the next generation.
The French, as is their wont, woke up from their Six Nations slumber today. Switched on from the start, they took a 6-0 lead before two quickfire tries from Sexton and Trimble put Ireland ahead. The home side’s response was swift and sublime. A crossfield kick from Tales was parried beautifully by Huget back for Dulin to dot down. The second of Sexton’s missed kicks ensured France went in one point to the good at half time.
The second half was as tense as they come, with neither side letting up in the intensity. Ireland struck first, with a break from Trimble finished off by Sexton with assistance from the O-Apostrophes.
These are the players by which the golden generation of Irish rugby is defined. Captain Paul O’Connell was immense today. It’s a mark of the man that when you see blood on his face during battle you’re never quite sure if it’s his. He threw himself into tackles with the usual vigour, and made laughable last year’s notions that he was a spent force.
And then there’s O’Driscoll.  He was involved in much that was good about Ireland today. While there’s perhaps an argument that Andrew Trimble deserved the man of the match award today for replicating his Ulster form, it was only going to one person.If anyone thought he would go quietly into the international rugby retirement home they were mistaken. And if BOD himself thought he could waltz quietly into the Parisian night at full-time, he too was wrong. A French interviewer attempted to cajole the outside centre into “one more year.” O’Driscoll smiled and shook his head. As retirement parties go, this one takes some beating.
O’Driscoll held it together during his interview with RTE until he brought up the influence of Joe Schmidt. The respect he has for the former Leinster coach was clear to see. It’s a mutual respect, as evidenced by the Ireland head coach’s assertion that “we’ll get someone to fill (O’Driscoll’s) boots, but their feet might be a bit smaller.” Indeed.
Late on there was a sense that France might spoil the party. A try from hooker Szarzewski  had Irish fans covering their eyes. However a horrible penalty miss followed by a late forward pass with men over on the right wing denied Les Bleus a win that would have handed England the Six Nations championship.
In Rome, tears surely trickled down tuxedos as the English squad watched on helpless. Like Ireland in 2007, hammering Italy on the final day just wasn’t enough. Theirs is a good team with a capable manager. The World Cup next year is on their territory and they will not capitulate easily.
Ireland under Schmidt have raised the bar high for themselves. The New Zealand game showed they could compete with the best. Today showed they can concentrate for a full 80 minutes plus. There must be no let up between now and the World Cup. Those who have earned their first caps must muster such intensity every time they pull on the green jersey. The hardened veterans must hold on to the hunger for more silverware. For tonight though, it’s time to celebrate. Gordon Darcy’s beard will soon be no more.
A championship clinched in Saint Denis on St Patrick’s weekend. It doesn’t get much better than that.

A Crucial Season Ahead For Irish Rugby

Schmidt’s first season in charge (Pic: irishrugby.ie)
When it comes to Irish rugby all seasons are important, some are more important than others, and this is more important than most.
New Irish head coach Joe Schmidt will be looking to put his stamp on his team in the forthcoming November series. His Leinster sides played some outstanding attacking rugby which  the national side often lacked under Declan Kidney. The players are certainly there for Schmidt to usher Ireland into an exciting new era, with the likes of Madigan, Zebo and Gilroy providing stern competition for the elder statesmen of the national set-up.
The November series will be a baptism of fire for Schmidt however, with a game against Samoa followed by clashes with Australia and his native New Zealand. Ireland had the upper hand the last time they met the Wallabies back at the world cup 2 years ago, but while Australia lost the Lions series and made a poor start to this year’s Rugby Championship, they have an enviable list of attacking talent at their disposal.
Enviable to all except perhaps the World Cup holders themselves. The less said about Ireland’s last clash with the New Zealand the better, however Schmidt will hope that his charges can at the very least acquit themselves well when the All Blacks come to town on November 24th.
Brace yourselves… They’re coming.
Then comes next year’s Six Nations and the opportunity and necessity of consigning this year’s poor performances in the competition to history. Finishing in 5th place, below both Italy and Scotland is not something that Schmidt would countenance in his first season in charge. However the fact that both those sides finished ahead of Declan Kidney’s charges last spring highlights the fact there is no such thing as an easy game in the Six Nations. Schmidt’s squad must hit the ground running in their first two games (at home to Scotland and Wales) if they are to avoid a similarly underwhelming campaign.
If the national side is facing a year of transition, it perhaps pales in comparison to the changes at provincial level. Former Blues coach Pat Lam is challenged with taking Connacht forward following Eric Elwood’s resignation. The western province have enjoyed some great Heineken Cup nights in the Sportsgrounds on Elwood’s watch, and Lam’s task will be to ensure better showings in the bread and butter competition that is the Rabo Pro 12. Last year they finished a disappointing eighth, 12 points behind Treviso. Losing the influential Mike McCarthy to Leinster is a setback they must quickly overcome.
Connacht Head Coach Pat Lam
Looking eastwards, Leinster have to adjust to their own changes in personnel. With Schmidt leaving the set-up to take charge of the national side, it’s former Leicester Tigers head honcho Matt O’Connor who picks up the mantle. The Australian had a good record with the Tigers in the Premiership, guiding them to back to back titles. However he now faces the task of further filling the Leinster trophy cabinet. Without Jonny Sexton and with Brian O’Driscoll entering the final year of a glittering career. If Leinster are to hold on to other key players then O’Connor must hope the IRFU figure out a way to compete with the vast amounts of money on offer from French clubs.  Lions tourists Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip are the latest figures to be linked with a move away, with Clermont Auvergne reportedly interested in poaching the  back-rows once their contracts end next June.
Gone. Going? Going. (Pic: irishrugby.ie)
They knew the day was coming in Munster but it still hurt to say goodbye when Ronan O’Gara departed for Paris and a coaching role at Racing Metro. While the return of Paul O’Connell to full fitness after a frustratingly long spell on the sidelines last season will be a welcome boost, the question facing Rob Penney’s side is where the next group of leaders will come from. Peter O’Mahony has been given a vote of confidence in that regard, with the back-row taking over the captaincy for the season. However with O’Gara gone and Doug Howlett too, the issue is who will emerge as a leader in the back-line. It’s a big year for Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan as they battle it out to become O’Gara’s undisputed successor.
Ulster are perhaps the most settled of the Irish provinces, with coach Mark Anscombe in the job a year at this stage and little movement in or out during the summer. However even the most stable of Irish provinces will be thrown into chaos in the coming weeks. It appears that as of next season the Heineken Cup will cease to exist.
English and French clubs have both released statements in the past few days indicating an unwillingness to continue competing in the Heineken Cups in its current format. The present agreement for Europe’s premier competition ends after next year’s final. The French and English propose the establishment of a new 20 team tournament where qualification is gained solely on merit. They have stated that this new tournament will include teams from both countries but will also welcome sides from the other nations.
At present each country’s union has discretion in how to award the 24 allotted Heineken Cup places. France and England have six slots each, Ireland and Wales three and the Scots and Italy taking up the rear with two apiece. The winners of the competition and the Amlin Cup are also allocated a place in the top competition the following season.
Is the Heineken Cup coming to an end? 
These regulations have allowed Ireland to send all four provinces into Heineken Cup battle in the past two seasons  and again this season, as Leinster’s two Heineken Cup successes and their Amlin win back in May this year have allowed Connacht to dine at the top table. Undoubtedly this has been fantastic for Irish rugby as a whole and anything that will alter the current arrangement should be treated with caution.

The ERC have countered the statements of the English and French clubs by reiterating that they must approve any European competitions, and stating that all parties are working towards a deal to extend the agreement that ends in May next year. However if the Anglo-French demands are not met and the Heineken Cup ceases to exist, it is imperative that the IRFU choose their side carefully. The provinces cannot survive on the Rabo Pro 12 alone, and anything that hurts them hurts the national team too.